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Fallacies Against the Grid

by Paul Knight. Average Reading Time: about 6 minutes.

I have heard many criticisms about the grid plan–It’s boring, It’s unnatural, et cetera. Having happily visited and lived within gridded towns and cities I have wondered why these perceptions exist. What is so wrong with straight streets? Following, I address some common fallacies in a defense for the grid.

Fallacy #1: The grid is boring.

This is perhaps the first reaction one might have when looking at an aerial map of a grid plan. I can almost understand why. Every block is the same size, every turn is the same 90 degrees, and every view is in the same direction (straight).

All of that being said, it is a fallacy to assume that a town’s vitality or banality is a function of the grid itself. On the contrary, these qualities are dependent directly upon zoning and economy. The grid can be as exciting or as boring as the city decides to make it. For example, the following images were clipped from grid plans using Google Maps:

New York

Chicago

San Francisco

New Orleans

How boring are those grids?

The grid generates neither excitement nor monotony though it does provide for both equally. Again, the grid is simply what your city makes of it. There are plenty of plans that look interesting from above but fail on the ground.

Fallacy #2: The grid has only been used by greedy developers trying to maximize profits.

While it is certainly true that greedy developers have preferred the grid for its efficiency and economy, the grid has been utilized over time for many more reasons than this. Its place within American history is as varied as the number of cities it has helped frame. Here are a few examples of the grid’s varied uses:

  1. For the greedy developer: Chicago, Illinois experienced excessive speculation in real estate during the 1800’s predominantly due to the shipping and transportation industry’s success. The grid was the perfect tool to fan the speculative flame.
  2. For the Quaker value of equality: William Penn founded Philadelphia on the grid plan partly because it created equal lots and blocks everywhere. Thus, his concept of brotherhood and equality was embodied in the plan itself.
  3. For the sale and occupation of the West: Following the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, Thomas Jefferson needed a way to sell and occupy land that at that time had never been seen before by any American. His answer—the Cartesian grid and the Land Ordinance of 1785.
  4. For the Plat of Zion: Joseph Smith chose the grid as the physical structure for the structured society of the new Jerusalem in the American West.
  5. For the Illinois Central Railroad: The railroad company established stations every 20 miles or so from Cairo to Chicago. The grid made its way to every one of these towns.
  6. For the right-angled house: In 1811, New York Commissioners adopted the grid because “straight sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.” The same holds true for 100-story skyscrapers, too.
  7. For the farming of America’s Heartland: The grid provides a framework for farming in Kansas.

Fallacy #3: The grid only belongs in urban centers.

The grid is typically associated with highly developed urban centers. Because the grid was used almost exclusively as the founding framework for many of America’s towns and cities, over time these places have been built up to their urban levels as we observe them today. Given time, even a barren grid can become a modern metropolis.

Glancing at today’s urban grids, however, does not reveal the path of development that was taken. Every city in America began at one point as nothing. With that said, there are plenty of grid plans that never took off. These towns have for one reason or another resisted or lacked highly urban development opportunities. Grids can be ghost towns, farms, or suburbs. Following are images of these types of places that call the grid home:

Goldfield, Nevada

Maricopa, Arizona

Oak Park, Illinois

The grids upon which these places sit in many cases have the exact same footprint as their dense urban cousins. As a case in point, Paragonah, Utah’s grid is comprised of ~400 foot blocks. And how big are the blocks in Chicago?–400 feet. Exact same grid, drastically different town.

Remember the obvious—a continuous grid of nothing but orthogonal blocks can harbor everything from farms to skyscrapers. The only thing a grid plan does is subdivide territory. No town can predict what the future will bring, but if they have a grid it is easier to accommodate that future.

Fallacy #4: The grid is harmful to the environment because it ignores topography.

This is the fallacy I admittedly am least prepared to argue, but I present it here for the sake of discussion. I cannot point to data sets or studies that prove this fallacy wrong (or right) though I am sure they exist in some form. If you have something along these lines let me know.

The grid is famous—and infamous—for ignoring topography. J.B. Jackson, who studied the American landscape and created Landscape magazine, once wrote of the grid’s “triumph of geometry over topography.” San Francisco more than any other city embodies this attribute, but where San Francisco preserved the hills, Manhattan flattened them. While in both of these cases the grid brazenly ignores the hills and valleys, it should be well noted, however, that this is just one variable in a sustainable city. While ignoring topography may do some harm it ultimately prevents others. Like everything in life, the grid has its assets and its liabilities. The following is a brief list of benefits to keep in mind. I include it here only as bullet points to expound upon later:

Benefits of the Grid:

  1. Walkable: With the proper block size, the grid provides an inherently walkable street network.
  2. Navigable: Never ask for directions again.
  3. Adaptable: Land uses change constantly. With blocks and lots, a new land use can simply plug-in to the existing infrastructure.
  4. Historical: The grid is a fundamental part of our American heritage.
  5. Economical: A rectangular block allows you to do the most with the least. The exact same block in Manhattan has accommodated everything from a farm to an office skyscraper. The exact same piece of dirt—now that’s economical!
  6. Sustainable: A rectangular block allows you to do the most with the least. The exact same block in Manhattan has accommodated everything from a farm to an office skyscraper. The exact same piece of dirt—now that’s sustainable!
  7. Orthogonal: We live in rectangular places / We park in rectangular spaces. The orthogonal grid—it thrives / Due to the way that we live our lives.

Conclusion

Though criticized, the grid has given us places of the most vibrant, lively, and varied characters; places of every kind and every use. All of these places, from Paragonah to Chicago, are predicated upon the exact same urban netting. If you are unhappy with where you live, blame your zoning ordinance, not the grid.

Note: This is my initial post in a BlogOff on the American grid. As other participants of this BlogOff respond and post their work I will link to it here.

24 comments on ‘Fallacies Against the Grid’

  1. Keith says:

    On your points…
    Fallacy #1 – The Grid is Boring… yes, it is,… from the air. But who among us actually “experiences” a city from the air? Once we’re on the ground, the grid can be quite interesting (and navigable as a pedestrian), while those interesting shapes of curving and looping streets in suburban subdivisions are amazingly boring bland tones of beige when viewed from the ground.
    Fallacy #2: – The grid maximizes profits… perhaps, but if modern suburban developers were going broke doing anything but the grid, then I doubt we’d be doing anything other than grids. I’m not sure this is a real point.
    Fallacy #3 – The grid only belongs in urban centres… another false point. The grid does, most likely, belong in older forms of land subdivision (urban, suburban, rural… centres, farmland, whatever).
    Fallacy #4 (my favourite, because I have heard it): The grid vs. topography. Think San Francisco… the grid + topography = a few dead end streets… but fewer than these “false” topography-fitting designs. I can’t quantify it, but can anyone prove that the “topography-fitting” streets actually conform to hillsides and valleys (e.g. do they really minimize earthworks, drainage impacts, etc.)? I’m skeptical… so I’ll say it’s false and that a good grid is better even with topography (I dare you to prove me wrong!).
    New statement… the only thing better than a grid is a grid with 45 degree cross streets to make walking distances even shorter (but what a pain for building construction!).

    • Paul Knight says:

      Keith, good points!
      Most of these fallacies are stated by John Reps in his book “The Making of Urban America.” Reps was certainly no fan of the grid. On page 314: “We now view most of these gridiron plans with distaste. Their lack of beauty, their functional shortcomings, their overwhelming dullness and monotony, cause us to despair.” Yikes.
      I too would like to find more information on the topography issue.
      Your statement on diagonals is a good one–it would certainly make Daniel Burnham happy.

      • Casey Hildreth says:

        In speaking to your point about the grid being “boring” and to the comment on diagonals:

        Grids are efficient and good in all the ways you suggest, but having periodic breaks or deformities (e.g., diagonal streets left over from original rail, riverway, and cowpath trails, and their resultant “starburst” intersections a la Times Square) can be incredibly important for helping with city legibility and mental maps. Yes grids can be exciting and any blanket statement to the contrary is flat out ignorant, but there is something to be said about breaking up cities into manageable zones and neighborhoods.

    • Derek says:

      I don’t deny the grid has its benefits, but neither would I want to discount the potential splendor of a more intricate urban fabric, as in Haussman’s Paris or the Medina courtyard typology, which also responds effectively and organically to change. It comes down to a choice between utilitarianism and romanticism.

      The grid also creates a more privatized, decentralized field, less conducive to the formation of centers, clusters, or even vistas. A grid is simply not always the best choice to create a sense of place.

      But there are a lot of wonderful grids, of all varieties. Designing a grid can be an art in itself!

  2. Dennis McClendon says:

    Chicago blocks are nearly all 330 x 660 feet. Not sure where 400 feet comes from.

    • Paul says:

      I thought that too–maybe it was in one of John Reps’s books. But going to Google Earth and measuring you’ll find there is actually a large variety of block sizes. Downtown is around 380×400, north of the river is around 220×320, west of the river is around 280×380.

  3. Chris K says:

    #1: Sure any place that has plenty of destinations and things going on will be interesting and exciting. However a non-grid city will be more exciting than a grid city when it has the same sort of programming. Look at Lincoln Square in Chicago and the West Village in NYC.

  4. PJ says:

    Also, a grid gives you more navigation choices and offers fewer opportunities to accidentally get stuck in dead-ends.

  5. David Week says:

    I agree with your points about the grid. I suspect that the antipathy to the grid comes from the common architectural over-estimation of the importance of form in real life. In fact, human life thrives in all kinds of places.

    To your study of grids, I think it would be worth also looking at:

    • Australian cities of Melbourne and Adelaide: cultural capitals of Australia, and always in the top 10 global “best cities to live in”

    • South American colonial towns: in which whole blocks are marked unbuilt, to become parks or plazas.

    • Ancient Roman towns.

    I love it when someone attacks a common prejudice. Keep it up.

    • Paul Knight says:

      David,
      Thanks for your feedback and suggestions.
      South America, especially Argentina, is covered with grids. I suppose once the Law of the Indies took hold it just never let up. I’d be curious to learn what their modern development codes look like. It appears that they still adhere to creating grids.

  6. Adam says:

    Great article! I would add “Beautiful” to your list of benefits, as a nod to the aesthetic improvements the grid enables in terms of infrastructure placement. The grid is the street form which best lends itself to the alley, which allows for overhead utilities, trash/recycling collections, and vehicle parking to be located behind buildings and away from the streetscape. I grew up in Denver and took this for granted. After moving to New England and seeing the street fronts lined with an absolute mess of power lines, trees trimmed in a “Y” shape due to overhead utilities, and trash barrels scattered about, it makes a good case for the aesthetic values of the grid (and accompanying alleys).

  7. Jacob Mason says:

    An important point that is missing from this article is transit efficiency. On a good grid, it is easy to set up a bus network where you need only take 2 buses (1 transfer) to get between any two destinations in the city. It is also very simple to determine which buses to take. This is something that non-gridded cities struggle with.

    • Paul says:

      Thanks Jacob. This was in the back of my mind when I wrote “walkable” and “navigable,” but you’re right that I should explicitly mention transit. With a fine-grained grid, transit of every kind (bus, train, car, foot) is dispersed, afforded with many route options, and efficient.

  8. I´ve lived in Buenos Aires (a grid city) for so many years, and I still think that my city is beautiful, because all buildings are different, in consequence, the spaces perceptions are different. What I´m against of is to continue the grid everywhere, just because the origin of our city was a grid. That´s nonsense. REgards,
    Myriam

    • Paul Knight says:

      Myriam,
      Thank you for commenting. I am curious to learn more about Argentina’s preference for orthogonal grid developments. If you look at new developments outside of Buenos Aires they are all perfectly rectilinear grids. Do you know if there is anything in your local development codes that require the grid? Or is this simply a cultural preference?
      Thanks!

  9. […] retrofitting old buildings (Atlantic Cities). Shouldn’t most cities just use street grids? (Great American Grid) When you look at New York, the central spine of Broadway leaps out at you. But the other big […]

  10. richard says:

    Go to parkwaycity.com to see how multiple and redundant grids solve transportation and transit problems for greatly reduced cost.

  11. The assertion that “grids are boring and all the same” is like saying books are all the same – and therefore boring – because they have words arranged in rows on successive pages, bound by a cover, with a table of contents at the beginning, etc. Like books, the grid is an organizing convention, with a few typological variations; it’s what is being organized (farms to skyscrapers) by the grid that is important – and “interesting.”
    That we even have these discussions indicates Modern planning’s fixation with the graphic presentation of cities, rather than their spatial qualities; the preference of abstraction and explanation over function and experience.
    Good job writing this blog to dissect these issues!

    • Paul Knight says:

      Frank, thanks for your comments and excellent points! You are spot on calling out “Modern planning’s fixation with the graphic presentation of cities, rather than their spatial qualities.” If only these same planners would actually draw and diagram Chicago, San Francisco, Miami, and New York they may begin to realize what they’re missing. But, because so much of planning education is done sans pencil focusing instead on text, facilitation, and policy, they will never get it. How can one truly expect to knowledgeably affect urban form without ever having drawn urban forms?

  12. Dick Wall says:

    I guess nearly every place is capable of being loved by those who live there. I would strongly suggest that loving home is a pretty much innate in humans. Given other things being okay – food, warmth, safety and society – I’ve met folk in places I thought were horrible who loved home.

    So what does all that mean? I guess I’m suggesting that a lot of the really good reasons being given here for one design type “Grids” are actually all you grid homed humans doing what just what humans do. Your heart loves home so your reason will quickly cook you up 47 excellent reasons to support your emotion.

    I’m from Edinburgh – started atop a 50m year old extinct volcano and more than 2000 years of habitation. So we have a core that was easily defended, we have some early grid in the Georgian New town – started at the same time as the good ol’ US of A in 1776 – and we have a load of smaller towns and villages absorbed into the city as it has grown. All of this on a road plan that was pretty much evolved from the original tracks that were the shortest routes between towns and villages. We manage to survive a suboptimal layout and glory in the steps and bridges and trixy little corners. We find it pretty poor to get around but well worth visiting.

    I have several books that extol the virtues of our beautiful, hilly city that incorporates dozens of different approaches to town planning applied to a lot of facts on the ground.

    I guess what I’m saying is a lot of this is what you are used to and that there is very little objectivity about it.

    HOWEVER!!!!! Edinburgh, Rome, Stockholm, Amsterdam, London, the City of London, Venice? None of them as nice as Grid towns. I beg to differ. Could it be that grids are something like the town plan only a mother could love?

  13. adi says:

    my favorite grid is 500 meters(1500ft) square grid. it has many advantages.is at the edge of walking effort(last mile problem).it is the optimal distance between 2 bus stations.it doesnt have many intersections(like small grids has).
    also if paralel roads are singleway(one road nord,the next paralel road south for example) it will significantly simplify intersections;cars will go only forward or left(right respectivly),thus avoiding non-fluid turns;unlike the usual intersections were cars can move in three directions ,leading to jammings.
    i live in a non-grid city (bucharest) and im envious of the lucky people living in grid cities.

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